Pedagogical experiments in the musicological classroom

photo of books

This is a blog post. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

Written by
A man
Thomas Richard Hilder Associate Professor

In Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, the eminent feminist scholar bell hooks casts the classroom as “the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (1994: 12). For hooks, teaching is a political and spiritual praxis which has the potential to address social injustices through transformative learning. But such learning can only take place if we, as teachers, transgress conventional classroom activities, communication, power-relations, and space through care and love. “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students,” hooks espouses, “is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin” (1994: 13).

These lines immediately reverberated within me when I was first introduced to hooks’ text in 2018. For one, they summoned from my memory the most powerful moments I myself have experienced as a student. And, they gave nourishment and conviction to values I had already been striving for – with varying degrees of success – as a university teacher. I began to wonder how I could best work toward transformative learning in my own classroom.

Art, Academia, Activism

The notion that music is entangled in the wider world – in identity, institutions, technologies, environment – is fundamental to thinking in ethnomusicology, the discipline I teach at NTNU. My own research – currently on LGBT music ensembles in European cities, and in the past on Sámi music and the politics of Indigeneity – has explored how musical performance can itself help us imagine and bring about forms of social justice.

Lately, I have become interested in the field of applied ethnomusicology, where scholars consciously apply their knowledge and skills to address practical social, cultural, economic, political, environmental, medical issues within the communities they work. Introducing students to applied ethnomusicology on the one hand offers fascinating case studies for thinking about the multiple ontologies, functions and applications of music. Furthermore, it is also a wonderful way to debunk myths of art as universal and autonomous, and academics as heirs of objectivity, seemingly separate from and above the world they seek to explain.

As neo-fascist politics become increasingly mainstream in Europe and beyond, there has been a sharpened politicisation of ethnomusicological work, where scholars are encouraged to use their work to strengthen intercultural dialogue and oppose social discrimination. Likewise, over the past 30 years there has been a proliferation of artistic activism that strives to ameliorate human suffering and work towards social harmony, especially through the performing arts.

Such developments have pulled at my own musical and scholarly conscience while at the same time leading me to reflect on the potential practical problems and ideological dissonances of such well-meaning projects and scholarship. As Norway is a country that prides itself on its domestic democratic system and global aid work, while at the same time taking an unprecedented move in the last decade to right-wing neoliberal politics, I wanted to initiate a dialogue with students about the role of music in shaping human rights and social justice.

Designing a course with transformative potential

I thus set out to design a course for the semester of Autumn 2019 that would raise critical debate about the power of art, the ethics of political interventions, and the potentials of academic research. Of special inspiration were colleagues – some of whom were friends, some my former teachers, and others whom I had begun to collaborate with at this time – who have been exploring, embarking on, and assessing different forms of artistic activism. The course would also coincide with my participation in teacher training in higher education at NTNU.

I designed the course with three issues in mind. First, I felt compelled to dispel the myth that music is the most ephemeral of arts, that it’s connection to the social world is difficult to ascertain, and/or that only certain types of music are politicised. Second, I was keen to strengthen my students’ awareness that they are already artistic citizens with agency, responsibility, ethical choices, and steeped in particular musical ideologies. Third, I saw it vital to cast a critical gaze on the many forms of artistic activism proliferating around the world today, projects which are often celebrated in the media, but whose lasting impacts and the wider ethical issues they raise, are rarely debated.

I think that the course has been exciting. It has opened my eyes to what musicology can be used for in practice and how musicians can help humans and the planet in challenging situations. We got an insight into different projects where musicologists have engaged themselves in, amongst other things, aid work. I was constantly surprised about how many ways musicians can utilize their knowledge in the service of aid.”

Snorre Sletten, student

To be sure, the course was not necessarily meant to inspire students to become activists. But, if my course compelled them toward artistic advocacy, then they should at least be good activists. As my course took shape, I decided to use it to channel my exploration of bell hooks’ notion of transgressive pedagogy, my own path toward pedagogical activism. I conferred my course the name “Music and Social Justice: Artistic Activism and Applied Research in the 21st Century”.

Curating the transformative classroom

What is musical activism? What kind of social responsibilities do music researchers have? Can music be used to bring about social justice? These were the central questions I posed during the first class in August 2019 and which followed the students and myself throughout the semester.

While remaining cautious at first, my students – following bachelor and master’s programmes in musicology and music technology – betrayed their intrigue. During our ensuing weekly three-hour classes, I witnessed their participation grow and their reflective enquiry uncoil. Some of the initial students would leave, others would join. Those who attended and fulfilled compulsory attendance were nine students, one non-binary person, five women, three men, all Norwegian citizens.

An advocate of student-centred learning, I designed classes based around diverse activities and group formations, including discussions, online interactive exercises, audio-visual analyses, role plays, presentations, in addition to more conventional lecturing. The reading list I assembled became a bricolage of respected scholars, contesting perspectives, and global contexts.

While I created a course plan at the beginning of the semester, this had to be reflexively fine-tuned every week as I checked in with my students, invited feedback, and recalibrated the activities and materials. Over 12 weeks, we covered a myriad of topics such as music censorship, music in post-conflict regions, music and climate change, music and social integration, music and HIV/AIDS, music and refugees, and music and peace in the Middle East.

Connecting with students

I took great care to curate the content and format in ways that would engage students, to make the topics chime with their world, and to confront them with provocative questions. Such a practice is inspired by constructivist perspectives which insist that students fashion new knowledge through active exploration and reflection, refracted through the lens of, and eventually remolding, their existing wisdom and world views. In order to lay the foundation for this transformational learning, I had to connect with students on personal and ethical levels, even though it was often difficult to gauge what my students’ existing experiences and worldviews might be, and even though I could never assume that they were prepared to partake every week in the arduous communal effort of transformation.

My strategy was to begin each class by brainstorming a term or set of terms. In our class on poverty, aid and development, the question, ‘What is “poverty”?’ elicited a multitude of responses, deliberation, and querying. From these discussions, I could activate students’ existing knowledge and assess their understanding of the topic, while we together created a foundation of knowledge for the rest of the class. That these discussions themselves raised further inquiry, charged the ensuing activities with critical poise and self-reflection.

The most important thing I learned in the course is that I should raise more questions. I should raise questions about what concepts and terms we use in, amongst other things, academia and politics, and think about what they actually mean and what associations they have

Solveig Rønning, student

Bosnia and Herzegovina became the setting of our class on war, post-conflict and trauma. Here, we learned about the application of music in grassroot, state and NGO projects in order to assess models of community-based music therapy in the aftermath of the Bosnian War. Since I had recently travelled to the region, I used this opportunity to tell stories I had learned on my trip about the Yugoslav Wars and the broader context of European ethnic and religious diversity, legacies of empires, as well as political visions and failures. I was delighted that several students chose this topic to explore in more detail through their course assignments.

Our class on environment, global warming and climate change, I had assumed, would awaken strong enthusiasm, considering that the topic was at the forefront of media reports at the time. While students were interested to learn about human-nature relations through Indigenous musical performance, enjoyed a sound-walk of the campus, and appeared intrigued that there was such a thing as ‘ecomusicology’, I was a little concerned that this class seemed to inspire them the least. Such an experience was a stark reminder that teaching can be affected in unforeseeable ways by my own energy level, the general mood of the classroom, and other phenomena beyond my immediate control.

Special pedagogical moments

Teachers often romanticise those special pedagogical moments where student transformation is rendered most palpable, where the proverbial classroom carpet is pulled from under the students’ feet. My students were quite surprised by Geoff Baker’s timely critiques of El Sistema – the celebrated global classical music educational franchise with roots in Venezuela – and found it difficult to reconcile this criticism with El Sistema’s glossy image. Likewise, Rachel Beckles Willson’s pressing questions to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – with its utopian aspirations to promote peace in the Middle East – led students to query the power dynamics within orchestras and the choices of music genre for artistic activism. Both these classes helped to debunk Eurocentric and elitist myths of the healing powers of Western Art Music and enabled my students to recognise the often contradictory and problematic politics of projects that have otherwise received ubiquitously positive praise, especially in postcolonial contexts.

[W]e have learned to be critical to these projects, and see ethical and moral issues around how aid work is carried out. Overall, we have learned that it is good to be critical to most things and that we as citizens have to be critical to the society we live in in order to be able to serve it properly.

Snorre Sletten, student

But it was a case study closer to home, the famous Norwegian project Fargespill, that precipitated most critical reassessment. Aimed at assisting cultural integration of refugees in Norway, Fargespill has recently been the subject of a strong critique by Tom Solomon, which has led to heated debates on academic and public platforms. With caution, I invited my students to research the terms of these arguments and partake in a mock-TV debate in which they had to take on different figures and stakeholders in order to assess the efficacy and ethics of Fargespill. Appealing to my students to empathise with their assigned role-play character and to not reduce them to caricatures, I, as TV host, invited each protagonist to speak. What followed was quite a lively discussion about music, multiculturalism and racism in Norway, with both overlapping and polemical standpoints, moments of empathy and conflict, as well as humour.

I think for my own part I have become more hesitant to support a political cause. This is because, when we have discussed a project that, on first glance, appears fantastic, like Fargespill and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, there is nonetheless issues you can criticise, and these can disappear in all the positive publicity.

Solveig Rønning, student

These experiences made me appreciate how the moments where we restructure classroom hierarchies and invite students to drastically reassess their world views, are delicate and require trust. I sensed that the students felt vulnerable. Relinquishing authority, I too moved beyond my comfort zone. We all acted and reacted in unpredictable ways, calling upon our faculty for improvisation. While I couldn’t be sure that the experiments of this class would have the intended learning outcomes, this debate became a rich learning experience. I checked in with students at the beginning of the next class in case the exercise had been experienced by some as too destabilising.

Experimenting in the transgressive classroom

Moments of experimentation also arrived unannounced. I began the class on HIV/AIDS – where I planned to explore the role of performing arts in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns – with a general discussion on when, where, and how students had first learned about HIV/AIDS. As I listened to the group discussions, I was shocked to realise that students had been offered little formal education on this ongoing global pandemic.

I abandoned my teaching plan. Propelled by a sense of responsibility, I proceeded to share my own knowledge of HIV/AIDS – about testing, antiretroviral drugs, stigmatisation, discrimination – while remaining cautious about turning the class into sex education – I do not have that training. Only then did I myself recognise how my knowledge had been acquired through my own experiences as a gay man. To make sense of this discrepancy in what I had assumed to be general knowledge, I took this opportunity to come out as gay to my students. For information to acquire greater significance, I reflected during the class, it has to be, in certain moments, contextualised in embodied experience. Later, in my office, I documented these unexpected moments of improvisation and personal disclosure through reflective notes. I felt raw.

We went into many heavy topics such as HIV/AIDS and children who are dealing with trauma after war. When I worked with the texts I tried not to be overcome by how serious the topic actually was, because that would have made it a big challenge to read [the texts].

Solveig Rønning, student

Students, I perceived, may too be feeling moved, perhaps even vulnerable after classes. I invited them to write weekly ‘fieldnote’ entries, through which they could share, digitally and orally, the things they had learned in class, how classes had affected them emotionally, and what they would like to learn more about. This exercise strengthened forms of self-reflection, promoted forms of independent learning, and offered structures of mutual and self-care, that in their ways contributed to transformational learning.

Reflecting in the transgressive classroom

In the penultimate class, I wanted to shine the spotlight on ourselves, our institutions, our responsibilities. I set a chapter from Raewyn Connell’s recent book on the future of the university (2019) as well as a piece about the social responsibility of music teachers. Anticipating that the walls of the university building might inhibit discussion, I decided to invite students to a café in central Trondheim. I acknowledged to my students at the beginning of this alternative class that it was an experiment and that, like all experiments, it had the danger of ‘failing’.

How do we change institutions we find unjust? Or is it better to abandon and set up alternative spaces? Juggling such questions, we shared experiences of rebellion and calling-out, as well as conceding co-option and complicity. I opened up about my own experiences of calling out and being called out, in the hope of inspiring self-reflection as well as dissipating shame. Only by asking ourselves these painful questions, I reasoned, can we begin to have critical debate about the potential, ethics and co-option of activism in the wider world.

During this class, I shared my own desire that I would like to write a blogpost in order to document the course and reflect upon my teaching. I invited students to contribute to it with short texts. Two students submitted responses to questions developed from their weekly fieldnote reflections and it is extracts from these that are interspersed within this text.

The course has made me become more engaged in the world around me. In addition, I have become better at recognizing ethical problems in society and to know what I can contribute to this.

Snorre Sletten, student

Such texts complemented other forms of reflective dialogue I instigated and informal and formal feedback I elicited throughout the semester, that were not only invaluable for my teaching, but also for students’ own learning. I was warmed by students’ comments that highlighted their sense of personal and academic growth and greater civic engagement.

Transformational learning

Teaching “Music and Social Justice: Artistic Activism and Applied Research in the 21st Century” became an important step on my own path toward transgressive pedagogies. I designed and carried out the course within the disciplinary limitations of ethnomusicology as well as the structures of the Department of Music at NTNU, at the same time as I hoped it could in turn reshape these institutions.

I welcomed into the classroom the embodied-knowledge and personal identities of my students as well as my own. Preparing for classes taught me new facts and perspectives, and sharing this in dialogue with students led to new insights and forced me to reconsider ideas and standpoints. I became a co-learner with my students. And together, we fostered a space for storytelling, sharing, critique, vulnerability, mistakes, and experimentation.

Often this experience can be – for all parties – as exhausting as it is giving. As hooks reminds us, to invite your students to be vulnerable, you yourself have to show vulnerability (1994: 21). Likewise, the space has to be carefully curated, and sometimes moving to a different physical locale can catalyse new modes of being and thinking.

While I’m advocating here for experimentation, this experimentation has to emanate from experience, listening to one’s pedagogical intuition, trust in and care for students. Sometimes this experimentation has to be improvised. And experimentation means ultimately that you as a teacher have to be open to being transformed by teaching, to submit to learning. Perhaps these moments are the core of communal transformational learning.

I would not say that I am a radical teacher; neither would I suggest that my classes are revolutionary. Our pedagogical philosophy and practice have to be developed in dialogue with the student community for whom we are responsible, and within the institutional and disciplinary boundaries we work. bell hooks writes, “I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom” (1994: 12). Through teaching “Music and Social Justice”, I developed new ways of transgressing through which I hope both my students and myself have experienced some form of liberation.


I’m intensely grateful to Rasika Ajotikar, Andrea Bohlman, Jennifer Branlat, Christopher Geissler, Jill Halstead, Emily Gale, Stuart Gibson, Daniel O’Gorman, Stine Bang Svendsen, Shzr Ee Tan and Laryssa Whitaker for vitalising discussions about transgressive pedagogies and artistic activism. I was first introduced to bell hooks’ text by ethnomusicology colleagues at the workshop “Decolonizing Pedagogy and Practice in Music and Gender Studies” at the Hanover University for Music, Drama and Media in November 2018. “Music and Social Justice: Artistic Activism and Applied Research in the 21st Century” also became the subject of a report I wrote as part of my teacher training course at NTNU. I thank my teachers on this course and for the feedback I received on my report. Of course, I express gratitude to my students, who continue to challenge and teach me.

References and Further Reading

Baker, Geoffrey. 2015. El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Beckles Willson, Rachel. 2009. "Whose Utopia? Perspectives on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra."  Music and Politics 3 (2):1-21.

Biesta, Gert J.J. 2013. Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.

Cheng, William. 2014. Just Vibrations: The Purpose of Sounding Good. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Connell, Raewyn. 2019. The Good University: What Universities Actually Do and Why Its Time for Radical Change: Zed Books Ltd.

Hofman, Ana. 2010. "Maintaining the Distance, Othering the Subaltern: Rethinking Ethnomusicologists’ Engagement in Advocacy and Social Justice." In Applied Ethnomusicology: Historical and Contemporary Approaches, edited by Klisala Harrison, Elizabeth Mackinlay and Svanibor Pettan, 22-35. Cambridge: Cambrindge Scholars Publishing.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Pavlicevic, Mercédès, and Angela Impey. 2013. "Deep Listening: Towards an Imaginative Reframing of Health and Well-Being Practices in International Development."  Arts & Health 5 (3):238-252.

Solomon, Thomas. 2016. "The Play of Colors: Staging Multiculturalism in Norway."  Danish Musicology Online:187-201.